When it's OK to be Unfair.
A sermon on Matthew 20: 1-16.
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Jonathan Pendleton on Unsplash]
After hearing the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, I would be willing to bet that at least a few of you just asked yourselves some version of the question: “how is that fair?!”
I mean, we know that we are always supposed to agree with Jesus in the gospel stories, but… come on! The people who work only an hour in the cool of the evening get the same wage as the people who work twelve hours through the heat of the day?
No! That’s just NOT FAIR!
Social science tells us that the instinct for “fairness” is deeply rooted in not only the human but even in primate social worlds. In fact, researcher Jonathan Haidt identifies fairness as one of the six essential moral foundations that span human cultures and provide the stability for cooperative societies. According to Haidt’s analysis, the importance of fairness as a moral principle is linked to the necessity for a society to have a commitment to “reciprocal altruism,” meaning that, in order for people to invest themselves in cooperative work that benefits the whole, they have to be able to trust that other people are going to do the same thing. Under that assumption, a failure to pull your own weight is a threat to collective well-being… hence our instinct to demand fairness in the rewards a society hands out.
But, as it turns out, Haidt’s research on moral foundations has turned up another understanding of fairness that is also really essential to human society – the collective commitment that the strong should not get to hoard all the resources at the expense of the weak.
In other words, the one word – fairness – can mean two different, and sometimes even opposite, things:
Fairness can mean proportionality – everyone getting what they have earned.
Fairness can mean equality – everyone getting what they need.
Both of these understandings of fairness are on display in today’s parable. The 12-hour workers are the spokespeople for the first kind of fairness. Their argument is a classic expression of the proportionality principle: “We worked more, so we should get more.” Most people would probably agree with them. This is the kind of system that ensures people keep working hard.
But the master seems to be operating from the equality premise. His deal with each of the groups hired later in the day is that he would pay them “whatever is right.” At the end of the day, we learn that means paying them the usual daily wage, which essentially works out to the wage needed to feed a person for a day. Any less and they couldn’t feed themselves. So, isn’t it right, fair even, that the person with an abundance of resources makes sure that his workers can afford food?
When we put it that way, it’s probably a little harder to argue against the owner’s actions. It would be rather cold-hearted to contend that people should get paid too little to even put food on the table. But what about the other workers. Shouldn’t they get more?
Well, maybe,… but they get paid the wage that they agreed to at the beginning of the day. They weren’t dissatisfied with this wage until they learned that the other workers were being paid the same amount. So, why did they object? If they received what they expected, what was the problem?
According to Haidt’s argument about social evolution, the workers are defending the foundation of their social contract. In order for cooperative society to work, everyone has to contribute. If some people learn that they can get what they need without working hard, they will take advantage, and everyone will suffer. The danger of abuse demands proportionality to “keep people honest.” Society will crumble without it!
But Jesus knows that there is an opposite danger that can be just as destructive to cooperative society.
To explain that danger, I want to share a story from my own life. The story occurred in a professional context in which I was part of a large team that was split into two sub-groups, each with a different supervisor.
My supervisor made a point of telling our group that she demanded more of us. She expected us to exceed the program hours, to add additional responsibilities, and to not expect accommodations. She presented all of this as something we should be proud of. Her group were the “superstars.” But there was an unintended consequence to this do-more expectation: a tendency toward resentment about how the other group “got the same credit for less work.”
This resentment eventually spilled out when one of my colleagues raised her dissatisfaction with the “unfairness” of the arrangement in the large group setting. Predictably, this did not go over well. The other team responded with anger at the clear insult, and the result was a spirit of divisiveness that undermined our collective commitment and support. Rather than working together as a whole team, we were caught in an atmosphere of suspicion, competition and tribalism.
The lesson that I learned from this experience is that too much concern about proportionality can be just as destructive to cooperation as too little. When proportional fairness is at the center of our moral reasoning, it turns any generosity shown to others into a moral affront to us.
In this experience, at least a part of the tension came from the supervisor’s messaging. If she had not pushed the narrative that we were working harder, and getting less accommodation, my colleague might not have resented the “unfairness” of the imbalance. Perhaps the conflict could have been avoided.
But, if we attend to the details, we will see that Jesus does the same thing in the parable. The landowner instructed the manager to pay the 1-hour workers first, thus making sure that the laborers who had worked all day were there to see the others receive the full day’s wage. In other words, he intentionally highlighted the disproportionality of the payments.
Why? Why does Jesus tell the parable this way? Why does he compare the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who deliberately sets up a conflict between generosity and proportionality?
I think the key to understanding this parable is in the landowner’s question: “are you envious because I am generous?”
The simple answer is, most likely, yes. Yes, for the workers. Yes, for most of us too! If we are invested in the principle of proportional reward, this generosity will be a problem. As author Mary Gordon expresses is. “I am envious because you are generous. I am envious because my work has not been rewarded. I am envious because someone has gotten away with something. Envy has eaten out my heart.”
Let me be clear, I know this envy from the inside. I know that I am subject to this same corrosive power of resentment in a variety of contexts.
I am all for proportionality when I see data about the gender pay gap, and I feel the tug of envy when I see the entitlement out of which many male colleagues operate, while I – as a woman– feel the need to constantly accommodate myself to other people’s feelings and needs.
I also feel frustrated about the inequities in our system that don’t reward the work of so-called “unskilled” laborers –often people of color - who break their backs and their spirits for low wages and no benefits.
And I tense with resentful envy when I think about the Wyoming voter whose single vote in national elections counts over 3 times more than mine because I live in high-density NJ.
Such envy is not always bad – it can highlight disproportionalities that cause harm, and motivate us to improve not only the fairness, but also the compassion and justice of our society. But such envy IS a problem if, as Mary Gordon so picturesquely writes – it “eats out my heart.” If it pushes me to want the advantaged to be injured, rather than for the injured to be healed. If it makes me root for things to be taken away from those who “don’t deserve them,” rather than rooting for everyone to get what they need. If it steals my joy and gratitude for the chance to do meaningful work, and to pay my bills, and to cast my vote in a country that gives me that freedom.
In other words, if it makes me care more about fairness than I care about wholeness.
Fairness does matter. Haidt’s research teaches us that a commitment to proportional fairness supports a co-operative society where people work together for the common good. But fairness is the means, not the end. It’s the co-operative commitment, not the “fairness,” that matters most.
That’s why Jesus’s vision of the kingdom isn’t that concerned about fairness. Jesus came to proclaim a kingdom in which we all seek the good not only of ourselves, but also of the other; a kingdom in which God’s generosity prompts not our jealousy, but our gratitude and joy.
Of course, the reality of our world is that such a kingdom will feel jarringly unfair because we are used to depending on the idea (if not the practice) of proportionality to keep everyone in line. But Jesus isn’t about keeping everyone in line. He’s not about control. He is about healing. He is about calling us to work not for our own wages, but for the good of the world.
Christ’s invitation to us in this parable is to hear his question about our envy, and to let it transform us into people who are NOT envious about the grace and generosity given to others, because we know the grace that has also been given to us.
And the good news is that that grace invites us to wholly invest ourselves in the good of others in a way that we never will if all we care about is fairness.
Thanks be to God.
 See the description of research with capuchin monkeys reacting to unfairness in Debie Thomas’s commentary on this gospel: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2757.  Haidt’s “Moral Foundations Theory” is expounded in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, New York: Vintage Books, 2012.  From the book Reading Jesus, as quoted in https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2757.